Within minutes of landing in the city of La Paz in Bolivia, a severe headache threatens to ruin my vacation. At 4,100m above sea level, La Paz’s El Alto International Airport is the world’s highest commercial airport. The likelihood of soroche—“altitude sickness” in Spanish—is so high that the airport comes equipped with an oxygen room, where the nurse places an oxygen mask on me. As comforting as this is, lugging an oxygen cylinder across Bolivia is just not an option.
The search for an alternative brings me to the Witches’ Market, an eerie set of stalls tucked away at one side of the hilly Linares Street. The place is known for selling dried toucan beaks, dead llama foetuses, and folk remedies which together seem to give the market a distinct smell that I haven’t encountered before. I am looking for the mystical coca leaf, which has a bad reputation because it can be refined to produce cocaine. Its possession and sale is legal in only a handful of countries, including Bolivia. Here, the forbidden leaf is an intricate part of life and culture, and has helped the indigenous peoples of South America tame altitude sickness for centuries. Bolivia even celebrates National Coca Leaf Chewing Day every March 12. The variety of coca products at the market is overwhelming: leaf powder, teas, even balms. I buy a palm-sized green plastic bag of the leaves and continue on my journey.
Later, on the overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, I find myself short of breath again. The two soroche pills I have popped haven’t helped so I open my bag and put a few coca leaves in my mouth. They’re bitter and make me wince.
They also helped me fall asleep—something I realize when I am jolted awake in Uyuni the next morning. My three-day tour of the Bolivian altiplano (high plain) doesn’t begin for another day so I use my time to stroll along the dusty streets, trying pizza made with quinoa dough, and acclimatising for the tour that will take me as high as 5,000m above sea level.
Our first stop is Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Our land cruiser runs over millions of hexagonal salt tiles that form the stunning flats. The rainy season transforms Salar’s white surface into a giant mirror reflecting the blue sky. Sadly, it hasn’t rained enough and we have to delight ourselves with an unimaginably empty yet captivating salt desert.
The next day is crippling. I can feel every inch of our climb up the altiplano and the elevation has made me horribly nauseous. Instead of admiring the sulphur plumes of the volcanoes in the Chiguana region, I am lying in the backseat of the car cursing myself for not having earmarked more time for acclimatisation.
“Do you still have that oxygen cylinder you mentioned?” I ask our guide.
“I do but I must save it for an emergency,” he replies, “There are 13 of us in the group and we have two full days to go.”
I nod dejectedly.
“But take this,” he says, handing me a pack of coca candies, “They will make you feel better.”
At first, they don’t seem to work but I keep having them anyway because unlike the leaves (and coca tea), the candy tastes good. By the time we get to the Laguna Colorada salt lake, an expansive red lagoon dotted with pink flamingos, I have no recollection of ever feeling sick.
Sol de Mañana, a geothermal field at 5,000m, is the highest point of our trip. I step cautiously as I watch steam suddenly erupt from the ground. This is definitely not a walk for someone grappling with soroche.
That night, we check into a basic rural home next to a natural hot spring. The guide briefs us on the plan for our last day. We are going to head back to Uyuni via volcanic rock formations and lush valleys full of llamas—the notoriously bad-tempered, quintessentially South American mammals that are related to camels.
It’s time to call it a night and the guide asks if I want some oxygen.
“No thanks. I still have some candy left.”
“All right, good night!”
“Good night? I’m not done yet!”
Soaking up the hot spring beneath a shimmering, star-freckled sky instantly becomes one of my favourite travel memories. And it isn’t something I could have experienced without the coca leaf.
La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world, following the Chinese domination of Lhasa. Its lowest and highest points are separated by an entire kilometre. The city stretches not only horizontally but also vertically, appearing like a cascade of buildings on an undulating landscape under the watch of the four-peaked, snow-kissed Illimani, Bolivia’s second-highest mountain.
Bolivian altiplano tours begin in Uyuni. Overnight buses run between La Paz and Uyuni, and cost US$40 (₹2,640) per person. A domestic flight would cost under $200 (₹13,200).
Tours cost between US$150-200 (₹9,900-₹13,200) depending on the number of days (1-3) and the tour operator. The altiplano is a hostile salt desert with geothermal activity, so make sure the tour operator has a good track record, sturdy vehicles with spare tyres, and enough room to carry food, water, and an oxygen cylinder in case of altitude sickness. If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure the guide speaks English. I travelled with the worthy Red Planet Expeditions (redplanetexpedition.com), which offers 3-day tours for $190 (₹12,540).
The spectacular reflections on Salar de Uyuni’s surface are more likely during the rainy season of January-April.
Outside of South America, there are two direct flights to La Paz: American Airlines from Miami and Avianca from Washington D.C. Indian citizens can look for connections accordingly.
Indian citizens need a tourist visa for Bolivia. The visa is free and takes five business days to process.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.